Myth Buster Prof on the Chrysanthemum Throne, Part Two

12/03/2010
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TOKYO (majirox news) – Part 2 of our interview with leading Japanese historian Ben-Ami Shillony focuses on insanity, the rumors surrounding Prince Akishino and the preservation of the institution.

Ben-Ami Shillony receiving his award from the Japan Foundation

A lot is written about the history of insanity in the imperial family, particularly the father and grandfather of the Meiji Emperor, and the Taisho Emperor himself? Is any of it true?

The story about insanity in the imperial family is certainly not true. The grandfather of Emperor Meiji was Emperor Ninkō. He reigned for 29 years (1817-1846), something which an insane emperor would not have been allowed to do. He was interested in literature and invited scholars to lecture at the Kyoto palace.

His son, Emperor Kōmei, Emperor Meiji’s father, was an exceptionally assertive emperor. During his 21-year reign (1846-1867), the western powers forced Japan to open its doors. Emperor Kōmei opposed the opening of Japan, wanted to expel the “barbarians” and opposed the plans to overthrow the shogunate. He was wrong and the policies which he favored endangered Japan, but he was not insane. His death in 1867 (there was a rumor that he was assassinated by poison) paved the way for the Meiji Restoration a year later.

His son, Emperor Meiji, collaborated with the southern samurai who overthrew the shogunate and unleashed far-reaching reforms that made Japan, during his long reign (1867-1912), into a modern and strong country. He often appeared in public and was a prolific poet. Nobody can claim that he was insane.

What is the truth to the assertion that the Taisho Emperor was mentally disturbed and kept under 24 hour a day control?

Emperor Taishō was a sickly person, but his sickness was physical and not mental. In his childhood he suffered from meningitis, but later he seemed to have recovered from it. He was more outgoing than his father. As a crown prince, he rode a bicycle, took pictures with his own camera, met with ordinary people and even visited Korea, in 1907, before it was annexed by Japan. He wrote Chinese poems in a beautiful handwriting, something that an insane person would not be able to do. Emperor Taishō was the first monogamous emperor, doing away with the palace concubines.

He fathered four healthy sons, none of whom had mental problems. The widely repeated story that once, when opening the Diet session, he rolled his speech into a kind of telescope and gazed through it at the Diet members, has not been corroborated by any eye witness.

In 1919, his health deteriorated and he developed difficulties in speech and memory. In 1921, after nine years on the throne, when he could not exercise his duties anymore, he appointed Crown Prince Hirohito as regent and went to recuperate. In 1925 he suffered a stroke and in December 1926 he contracted pneumonia and died.

Unlike what some people think, Emperor Taishō was a very popular emperor. When his critical condition was announced, there was an outpour of sympathy for him all over Japan. Some people even committed suicide in identification with the dying emperor. During his funeral, over a million people lined the streets of Tokyo to bid him farewell.

What about rumors then that Taisho Democracy was a direct result of the Taisho Emperor being mentally disabled?

During the reign of Emperor Taishō (1912-1926) many democratic reforms were carried out in Japan and the country approached the stage of a parliamentary democracy (the Taishō Democracy). These reforms were sanctioned by the emperor. He approved the reforms not because he was ill and could not oppose them, but because he supported them.

He also decided to send his son, Crown Prince Hirohito, on a European tour, despite the objections from conservative statesmen. He later agreed to send his younger son, Prince Chichibu, to study in Oxford. These two things involving imperial princes were unprecedented and would not have been possible without the emperor’s consent.

Did Sayako Kuroda (former Princess Nori) inherit this supposed strain of insanity? The bamboo telegraph refers to her as “Princess Valium” because she is supposedly kept drugged up all the time.

There was no strain of insanity in the imperial family of Japan, so there was nothing of this kind to be inherited. I have no idea whether Mrs. Kuroda, the former Princess Nori, takes any drugs. But she is far from being insane. She studied Japanese literature at Gakushūin University and later worked as a research associate at the Yamashina Institute of Ornithology. She often travelled abroad to represent the imperial family.

What about rumors surrounding Prince Akishino? Why does he make so many trips to Thailand? Apparently he’s been there at least 12 times in the last 12 years.

Prince Akishino has a doctorate in ornithology and is president of the Yamashina Institute of Ornithology and of the Japanese Association of Zoological Gardens. In the 1990s, he made frequent trips to Thailand to observe the catching of catfish. Some weekly magazines suggested that he had a secret affair with a Thai lady who was his research assistant, but these rumors were denied by the palace.

What is the history of incest in the Japanese imperial family? I understand that marriage between brothers and sisters was a common practice.

I don’t think that incest was prevalent in the imperial family of Japan. In ancient times emperors and imperial princes married half-sisters, a custom that prevailed also in many other countries. I am not aware of any incest of emperors in the last couple of centuries.

What can the imperial institution do to preserve it’s role today?

Although the Japanese emperor today has no powers at all, the long history of this institution and the important role it played in the past make it into a national treasure that should be preserved and respected.

The prestige of the imperial institution may be rejuvenated by providing it with an additional role to that of being just a symbol of the state and the unity of the people. Such role may be to become also the symbol of the preservation of the environment, in view of the traditional Shinto worship of nature.

Part 1 Link: http://www.majiroxnews.com/2010/12/02/myth-buster-prof-on-the-chrysanthemum-throne-2/

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